A Book Review: “John Holmes: A Life Measured in Inches”

Posted on September 14, 2010

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Title: John Holmes: A Life Measured in Inches
Author: Jennifer Sugar and Jill C. Nelson
Publisher: BearManor Media
Publish Date: 2008
Pages: 584
Genres: Biography, Non-Fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5

“Everything in life is an act; it’s the performance that counts.” -John Holmes

And John performed.

One can’t help but wonder where the life of the first true porn star, John Holmes, would have gone without the notoriety gained by his atypical physical endowment. Although the length of his penis is often contested, Ron Jeremy, an immensely popular male porn star, openly admits that Holmes “had me beat by about an inch—inch and a half.” But there was much more to the John Holmes than his illustrious career in pornography, his drug abuse, and his involvement with one of the most notorious mass murders in Hollywood history.

Jennifer Sugar and Jill C. Nelson’s coauthored biography, John Holmes: A Life Measured in Inches (2008), is as girthy as it is informative—nearly 440 pages of detailed first-person accounts from those who knew Holmes personally, as well as from the legend himself. The people interviewed and excerpted throughout the book become distinct through the tone and idiosyncrasies of their voices, providing intimate and multi-layered perspectives.

Sugar and Nelson have organized these accounts chronologically and rather seamlessly—the occasional pairing of certain statements regarding similar subjects help to reinforce each other.  The differing perspectives of each account have an undeniable effectiveness in shedding light upon and conveying Holmes’ intriguing story. Holmes’ notorious propensity to lie discredits certain aspects of his posthumously published autobiography, Porn King (1998), since close friends have said that he began to believe his own lies.

Throughout A Life Measured in Inches, you will find that three black-and-white photo sections of John from early childhood onwards supplement most chapters. The reader learns the trivialities of Holmes’ wholesome Ohio upbringing during the late 1940s and his tendency to drink gallon(s) of milk per day. The paternal figures from his childhood and early adolescence devolve into abusive alcoholics and force the teenage Holmes to drop out of high school and enroll in the Signal Corps. Along with a few other odd jobs, Holmes also drove an ambulance and a forklift in a meatpacking plant before finally volunteering in a stag movie in 1964.

Sugar and Nelson provide the historical framework for Holmes’ story, detailing the infancy of the adult entertainment industry before the era of “free love” with Hugh Hefner’s first Playboy publication in 1953. The next few decades would transition from scantily clothed stills into the 8 mm and 16-mm film used for more explicit material during the “Golden Age” of pornography.

Holmes’ freelance acting granted him unprecedented flexibility with production companies. Aware of the extensive demands of the porn industry, Holmes took on a variety of sexual roles to reach a wider audience by participating in gay scenes, masturbation loops, and sex with pregnant women. In a time where records were lost through the havoc of police raids and general disorganization, the nebulous facts regarding Holmes have contributed to the perpetuation of his legend. Although his prolific career includes two decades worth of adult loops and feature-length movies, the length of his penis (10-14 inches), the number of women he slept with (estimated at 4,000), and the age at which he lost his virginity (six and up), remain unverified, crafting an epic character with a tragic downfall.

The decadence of Holmes’ health from his drug abuse began damaging his career and triggered his involvement with the Wonderland Gang, a lethal group of cocaine dealers situated in LA during the early 80s. His association with this gang only increased his obsessive compulsion to sell stolen items to support his developing drug habit, further entrenching him in the drug exploits of Ed Nash, a high-profile crime figure.

The sections exploring the Wonderland murders and the ensuing trial immerse its readers into a fast-paced world of drugs and fatal deception. The dialogues exchanged between Julia St. Vincent, a romantic partner of John’s after having acted in Tell Them Johnny Wadd Is Here, and Dawn Schiller, John’s naïve teenage mistress and drug-using cohort, recall their involvement through vivid narrative. Following his sentencing of 119 days in jail for contempt, Sugar and Nelson end the chapter with a resonant distinction: “John was never a murderer; he was a drug addict!” (311)

From the first recorded scene with “snowballing” to Holmes’ preference to brunettes, A Life Measured in Inches offers an incredible gamut of information. The book concludes with a consummate filmography of John’s works, along with selected feature film reviews and the delineation of 150 loops, 306 features, and 27 compilations.

The vicissitudes of Holmes’ life offer a thought-provoking view of a time past, of a life lived dangerously and passionately. A Life Measured in Inches is a must-have for any fan of John Holmes and anybody interested in the origins of the fastest growing and most internationally lucrative industry today.

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Posted in: Book Reviews